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Pretentious or Presidential? President Obama’s Summer Reading List

August 15, 2015
Being president means critics over-analyze the books you read. (image via wikimedia)

Being president means critics over-analyze the books you read. (image via wikimedia)

Everybody needs a vacation, especially presidents.  Supporters of President Obama are glad he’s on vacation because he works hard and they want him energized for his final months in office.  Critics are glad he’s on vacation because that means he’s not signing executive orders or making speeches on television.

And when it comes to presidents, everything can be polarizing, even the books they read.  Just as President Obama’s vacation was starting, the White House released his vacation reading list, which included the following books:

All That Is  by James Salter

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

At first glance, this list is impressive.  Several award-winning books, some literary fiction, and nothing written by James Patterson.  Some critics have complained that it’s unlikely for President Obama to read that many time-consuming books during a brief vacation.  Maybe, but that’s not the point of a vacation reading list.  You choose six books, just in case five of them suck.

President Obama is the president, after all.  If he doesn’t want to read all six books, he doesn’t have to, just like President Bush 41 didn’t have to eat broccoli because he didn’t like broccoli and he was the President of the United States.

Even if President Obama claims later to have read all of the books, I might not believe him.  Politicians often claim to be experts on stuff they haven’t read, but that stuff is usually legislation, not books.  I don’t mean to pick on President Obama.  I’m also not convinced President Bush 43 really painted the pictures that he’s claimed he’s painted.  I simply don’t trust politicians, regardless of political party.

Maybe, just maybe, these books are on President Obama’s reading list because he’s expected to read literary stuff.  President Obama is an Ivy Leaguer, and Ivy Leaguers can’t be seen reading Stephen King or John Grisham.  Those novels don’t look presidential.  But if the White House has released a list of books that President Obama won’t really read, then it makes him look pretentious.    I expect any president to have flaws, but literary pretention seems to be an unnecessary one.

Here’s the problem.  Every March, the White House makes a big deal about President Obama’s NCAA March Madness brackets.  It’s kind of fun to compare the president’s results with the rest of the nation (even though a president should maybe have much more important things to do).  President Obama seems to know a lot about college basketball.

What does this have to do with his reading list?

I know hundreds of people who fill out NCAA March Madness brackets, and I know know a few people who read literary fiction regularly, even on vacation.  In my experience, however, there is no overlap.  People who are serious about their NCAA brackets are not interested in literary fiction or Pulitzer Prize-winning books.  They might be married to somebody who likes literature, but there is no direct overlap.  Therefore, President Obama is (probably) being pretentious with his reading list.

Maybe the First Lady is reading from this book list.  Maybe the Obama daughters are.  But it’s probably not the president.  He might glance at the books, maybe thumb through a few pages, but he’s not reading them.  Not if he’s serious about those NCAA brackets.  It’s a completely different mindset.

There is the possibility that President Obama doesn’t fill out his own NCAA brackets.  Maybe he devours literature on a regular basis but doesn’t let anybody know because it would cut into his cool persona.  Maybe his aides fill out his brackets for him while the president catches up on award-winning literary fiction.  Maybe, but I doubt it.

Therefore, until I hear from the White House that President Obama does NOT complete his own March Madness brackets, I’m afraid I have to conclude that our president is a literary pretender.  And that’s okay with me, as long as he’s not reading anything by James Patterson.


What do you think?  Have you read any of the books on President Obama’s reading list?  What was on your own summer reading list?   Do you fill out NCAA basketball brackets every year?  Is it possible to seriously fill out NCAA March Madness brackets AND read lots of literary award-winning books?


Nice Things didn’t make President Obama’s summer reading list, but there’s always next year!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

  1. no idea about ncca march madness, as Basketball is not that big in Europe. But soccer is, and filling in brackets for soccer world Championships AND reading books is possible. So BO might not be pretending, after all…

    • Theoretically, it’s possible, but I’ve never seen it. The March Madness is 64 teams, a bunch of which are small, little known schools. The kind of person who gets excited to fill out a 64 team bracket isn’t usually the type to get excited about reading Booker or Pulitzer Prize-winning literature.

      At least, that’s been my experience.

      • I don’t do much march madness because the NBA is way, way better than college basketball. But I know plenty of guys who are into college ball for some strange reason, who read way more literature than I do and mentioned Ta Nehisi Coates to me in the first place, and have advanced degrees and generally make me feel stupid and uneducated, but in a very nice way.

  2. I bet Obama’s aides read these books and then brief him on them.

  3. I haven’t read any of those. Why can’t he just read something light and entertaining? I bet he has a secret stash of James Patterson and Harlan Coben books, or maybe some books written by Indie authors hidden somewhere – I hope he does.

    • Yes, the Presidential secret stash (whatever is in it) is always more interesting than whatever the White House releases to the public.

      • I wonder why they don’t want us to know he is just a normal guy with normal reading preferences. That would be so much more interesting.

  4. Okay, I don’t get it: How come I know more about the personal life of the US-President, than I know about the personal lifes of the President and the Chancelor of my own country combined?
    Former Chancelor Schröder was said to govern via media, but even he was an introvert compared to President Obama. And from what I hear about the pre-elections of who becomes canidat for Presidentship, I gather, there are tons of private information open to everyone about everyone who gets even slightly near to the oval office.
    I don’t judge this. I just wonder: Why so?
    Related to the article’s topic is this that way: I checked on the authors on Obama’s reading list. Five of them alive – isn’t being on that list kind of an unfair advantage over everyone, who is not on the list?
    Does the White House employ itself as advertiser for some authors? And if so: Could they be sued (by, essentially: every living author in the world)?

    • I don’t know, maybe the president is getting kickbacks (or fundraising contributions) from the publishing companies involved, but if that bothers anybody, good luck suing him.

  5. unless its satire, your conclusion stinks. of course its possible.

  6. 1. I find the Presidential Reading List at least slightlypretentious; it’s as if these are the books he’s expected to read – especially BTWAM.

    2. I am the overlap of literature of NCAA Basketball.

    • There are very few overlaps, so if you’re one of them, that makes it even less likely that President Obama is one of them too.

      I just don’t know how many overlaps there really are, but there can’t be many of you/them.

      • based on the areas of the internet I frequent, there are either many, or, if they are not many, they are bizarrely concentrated in Minnesota and a significant minority of them are communists.

  7. I don’t think the two things cancel each other out. People are multi-dimensional.

  8. I am suspicious of the phrase “the White House released his vacation reading list.”

    First, it’s a vacation. Vacations are typically a lot of work. You’ve got to see this and that, do this and that, spend time with these or those. Granted, the President probably has people to plan this for him. But we must also consider that the President probably has a more full agenda than most of us do on a vacaction. Most of us aren’t Presidents. There’s no way his vacations could possibly be as relaxing as even the most normal person. And the most normal person’s vacation usually has at least a goodly amount of stress involved.

    Second, that’s a lot of mo%th@^& f$Ru%g books. Who has time to read so many books on a vacation? No one. No one has time. Especially the President.

    Third, who except perhaps an Oprah “releases” a “vacation reading list?” That is a whole bunch of bu^%ll$^sh#$i$%tt.

    This smacks of many things. Pretentiousness could be one. Advertisement could be another.

    Baloney, I say. Don’t misunderstand me. I like our President. But this vacation reading list business is a big bunch of hooey, methinks.

  9. CheesyJ permalink

    Apparently, All the Light we Cannot See is well worth the read. I’ve been tempted to buy it numerous times.

  10. I cannot argue your common sense reasoning.

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